It’s always nice to put a face to a name—and not just in the case of humans. Paleontologist Paul Sereno just introduced the world to Pegomastax africanus, a small two-legged dinosaur that lived 200 million years ago, traipsing through what is now South Africa armed with a pointed beak, unexpectedly sharp canine teeth, and a bristling coat of quills. Calling to mind an image of such an unusual animal is difficult (I come up with a sort of parrot-wolf-porcupine-raptor mix which, while intriguing, is certainly not correct). Luckily, however, there are people like Tyler Keillor, a paleoartist who builds lifelike models of ancient animals, letting us see them face to face rather than as a list of features. In the video above, he reconstructs P. africanus layer by layer, starting with a resin skull and adding clay muscles, all the way up intricately painted silicone rubber skin and fishing-line quills.
[via Scientific American]
The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy
What’s the News: The walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, the centuries-old seat of Florentine government, have doubtless housed many secrets over the years. Now, a physicist, a photographer, and a researcher who uses advanced technology to analyze art are teaming up to reveal one secret that may still linger there: a long-lost mural by Leonardo da Vinci, thought to be hidden behind a more recent fresco. The team plans to use specially designed cameras, based on nuclear physics, to peer behind the fresco and determine whether the da Vinci is actually there—and if so, to take a picture of it.
From across the pond comes a ravishing collection of scientific imagery. The Wellcome Collection, a London museum, has just announced the winners of its Wellcome Image Awards.
The 21 award winners, selected from images acquired by the Wellcome Collection over the last 18 months, were chosen both for their ability to enhance scientific understanding and for their aesthetic appeal. Many use colour to better illustrate hard-to-see features. [New Scientist]
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Walking the halls of one of the world’s great art museums, it’s easy to regard familiar classic paintings as eternal and unchanging. But this is not the case. Paintings are a mix not only of color but of chemistry—and chemistry changes. In some of Vincent van Gogh’s works, the striking, sunny yellows have faded and turned brownish, robbing the Dutch master’s art of some of its trademark intensity. So a European team of scientists decided to find out exactly what was happening on those canvases.
Using sophisticated X-ray machines, they discovered the chemical reaction to blame — one never before observed in paint. Ironically, van Gogh’s decision to use a lighter shade of yellow paint mixed with white is responsible for the unintended darkening, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Analytical Chemistry. [Los Angeles Times]
Vincent loved yellow. In particular, he loved chrome yellow, a 19th century invention that shone brighter than previously available hues of paint. Art preservationists have known that the lead-based paint fades under intense sunlight, so they’ve done what they can to keep van Goghs and similar works out of intense light. What’s curious about his paintings, however, is that some yellows have faded while others have not.
Google extends its tendrils into new arenas so quickly that it’s difficult to keep up. This week the giant tech company is creating digital art museums, challenging the hackers of the world, letting you play doctor on your tablet, and messing around with fractals.
Google Art Project
Going to an art museum: Sure, it’s a great way to improve your cultural cachet, but it also makes your feet hurt. Fortunately for couch potato art lovers (or those of us who can’t fly all over the world on a whim), Google is bringing some of the world’s greatest museums to you through Art Project, which takes Street View technology into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Van Gogh Museum, and others.
The level of detail offered up by up to 14 billion pixels is pretty jaw-dropping. Take “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger at the National Gallery in London. It would be easy to ignore the sheet of music that sits on a table in the painting. But with the Google Art Project’s magnification, users can see that the sheet music actually has real music painted onto it. The user can zoom-in and see the individual notes and words with pin-sharp clarity. [Wall Street Journal]
For now just one painting from each of the participating museums is captured in such detail. More could come, and the project’s founder is also seeking a way to capture three-dimensional art, like sculpture.
A Chrome Challenge
For the first time, Google is taking its Chrome browser to Pwn2Own, a competition in which hackers try to break into the major Internet browsers including Firefox and Internet Explorer. And the company is making things a little more interesting, kicking in an additional $20,000 of prize money into the pool.
A particular set of rock paintings dating from more than 40,000 years ago don’t seem to be made of paint anymore. According to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, the vibrant artworks were long ago colonized by colorful microbes, which serve as “living pigments” in the paintings. Lead researcher Jack Pettigrew, of the University of Queensland in Australia, explains:
“‘Living pigments’ is a metaphorical device to refer to the fact that the pigments of the original paint have been replaced by pigmented micro-organisms…. These organisms are alive and could have replenished themselves over endless millennia to explain the freshness of the paintings’ appearance.” [BBC News]
When the researchers analyzed the so-called Bradshaw rock artworks found in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, they didn’t find paint. Instead they found a black fungus, probably belonging to a fungi group known as Chaetothyriales, as well as a reddish organism that is suspected to be a species of cyanobacteria.
Behold La conversione di San Paolo (The Conversion of St. Paul), one of the masterworks of Caravaggio. The Italian artist of the Baroque era was famous for the chiaroscuro shading—dramatic contrasts of light and dark—evident in this conversion scene. But he was also renowned for living hard and dying young. Four centuries after his death, Italian researchers say they’ve found his bones, and they might know what actually killed him: the lead in his paints.
First, the researchers had to find his remains. Caravaggio died in 1610 in the Tuscan town of Porto Ercole, but his remains were whereabouts unknown until a researcher claimed to turn up a death certificate in 2001 pointing to the crypts there. The bones the scientists found there matched a man aged 38 to 40 (Caravaggio’s age range at his death) and dated to his era. And the DNA matched combinations found in people from the painter’s hometown and sharing his original surname, Merisi or Merisio.
“There can’t be the scientific certainty because when one works on ancient DNA, it is degraded,” Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist on the team, told The Associated Press. “But only in one set of bones did we find all the elements necessary for it to be Caravaggio’s — age, period in which he died, gender, height.” The group says there is an 85 percent probability they are right, though team leader Silvano Vinceti says that is conservative. “We are being cautious,” he said. “As a historian I can say we have found the remains… All evidence concurs” [AP].
A cache of ostrich eggshell fragments discovered by archaeologists in South Africa could be instrumental in understanding how humans approached art and symbolism as early as the Stone Age. The eggshells, engraved with geometric designs, may indicate the existence of a symbolic communication system around 60,000 years ago among African hunter-gatherers [Discovery News].
At a site known as the Diepkloof Rock Shelter, a team led by archaeologist Pierre-Jean Texier discovered fragments of 25 ostrich eggs that date back 55,000 to 65,000 years. In an online paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archeologists revealed that the eggshell fragments were etched with several kinds of motifs, including parallel lines with cross-hatches and repetitive non-parallel lines [ScienceNow]. The scientists are confident that the markings are almost certainly a form of messaging — of graphic communication [BBC].
It sounded like a good idea at the time: You’d had one too many at the pub, one thing led to another, and you ended with someone’s name tattooed on your back. When you rushed out as soon as possible for laser removal of the unfortunate ink, the practitioners were actually using the same techniques that some art restorers employ to remove dirt and grime from masterpieces. And according to a new study in the journal of the American Chemical Society, Accounts of Chemical Research, laser ablation is getting better and more widespread in the art world.
Salvatore Siano at the Applied Physics Institute-CNR in Florence, Italy, tried out the method on a few classic works of art to record the results scientifically. He cleaned parts of a wall painting from a church in Siena, Italy, and also worked on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gilded bronze panels Porta del Paradiso, or Gate of Paradise, and Donatello’s Renaissance bronze statue of David [BBC News]. While others have experimented like this over the last decade, he says, the Gates of Paradise was the first widely recognized masterwork to receive the treatment. He also notes that treating paintings poses the greatest challenge, but says that the laser cleaning showed great results–in the image above, the angel on the right was cleaned with laser ablation, while the two angels on the left received traditional cleaning.
Although the image of the Parthenon often featured in history books and tourist brochures is stark white, a new imaging technique revealed that the ancient Greek structure wasn’t always this way. In fact, parts of the building used to be painted blue, like many other sculptures from antiquity.
Pigments remain on other ancient Greek temples, and experts have long suspected that the Parthenon, too, was once brightly colored. But two centuries of searching for minuscule flakes of paint remaining on the Parthenon yielded no results, so it was impossible to confirm that the structure was not always white. To remedy that, a researcher at the British Museum in London created an imaging technique that reveals any remnants of a commonly used ancient pigment known as Egyptian blue, which was commonly used until the year 800 A.D. To use the technique, researcher Giovanni Verri shines red light onto the marble, and any traces of paint that remain absorb the red light and emit infrared light. Viewed through an infrared camera, any parts of the marble that were once blue appear to glow [New Scientist].